Mega-threats — violent events that target marginalized identity groups and garner significant media coverage — occur too often. These events arise from racism, bias and systemic oppression. And although those origins are macro-level issues, their consequences are deeply experienced at the micro-level, especially by members of marginalized groups whose well-being, work engagement and interpersonal relationships may be negatively affected.
How can people who are not part of the targeted identity group be supportive allies? Particularly in a professional setting, a well-intentioned individual with a dominant identity (perhaps cisgender, white, etc.) may avoid trying to be an ally due to concerns about saying the wrong thing. Yet, ignoring an atrocity can communicate the notion that one doesn’t care.
Research has honed in on three key types of allyship — and specific behaviors underlying each type — that provide guidance for would-be allies.
Be proactive in your learning, rather than expecting that people of marginalized identities will take on the burden of educating dominant group members.
Determine how a mega-threat is different from other events
Unlike threats or disasters that are not targeted toward a specific group, a mega-threat does target a particular group of people, is physically and psychologically dangerous, and is likely to have widespread media coverage.
Seek out multiple — and legitimate — sources
Before engaging with a colleague who belongs to a marginalized group, seek out and understand the opinions of other people in the relevant marginalized community. Doing so can help frame your own perspective and understanding.
Acknowledge that geographically distant events can feel close to home
News travels fast. A violent event may not literally be in your city, but its effects can feel immediate to those who identify with victims of the event.
Know that you don’t know
If you do not share the minority identity of your colleague: Even the best allies can’t fully understand what their minority colleagues are going through, and that’s okay. You don’t need to fully understand the experience to be a supportive ally. Keep learning and be willing to acknowledge when you misunderstand or fall short.
Provide Social Support
Mega-threats dehumanize. There is great value in empathically communicating to those who may feel that way that their group identity is an important part of society, and their whole self is valued and belongs in your organization and work group.
Explicitly acknowledge their value
On top of the physical threat someone may feel, a sense of self-worth may feel attacked or diminished. Acknowledging how they add value to the team may be encouraging.
Stay nimble in your allyship
Some people may want to talk about how they’re affected; some may not. Take note that these feelings may change day-to-day or moment-to-moment.
Knowing that feelings will fluctuate, ask someone how they’re doing that day or tell them that your thoughts are with them. This specific ask may be more a more effective form of support than a generic, “You OK?”
Offer real support, not just sympathy
Provide your colleague with genuine solutions to workplace problems. A distressing event can lead to both psychological and physical effects, and taking on even a small responsibility may make a huge difference to their daily life.
Be an Advocate
Speak up regularly, not just in the organization and not just after a mega-threat. But do take the opportunity to discuss the ongoing need for change.
Participate in community events
Whether you help organize them or encourage attendance, events that educate and provide actionable steps will help others be proactive ambassadors of fighting discrimination.
Use existing vehicles
Some months are already dedicated opportunities to celebrate heritage. These can be gateways to conversations about how to support marginalized groups.
Find an employee resource group
Effecting change can take some time. If you commit to a group that welcomes allies as members, you’ll develop relationships, which will boost both your understanding and your opportunities for support.
Promote time for mental wellness
A massive amount of emotional work can follow a mega-threat. Help your organization understand the need for mental-wellness days and virtual participation.
Read more in Darden Professor Melanie Prengler’s article “How to Be an Ally to Colleagues After Violence Against Their Community” on HBR.org, co-authored with Kristie Rogers of Marquette University, Nitya Chawla of Texas A&M University and Angelica Leigh of Duke University.